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March 01, 2010

Spring breakers will make it a working vacation

NIU students have built about 25 Habitat for Humanity homes

DeKalb, Ill. — A crew of NIU students will be headed to sunny Florida over spring break, but they won’t be sipping frothy drinks and lounging each day on the beach.

Instead, over a span of just four days, they’ll build two Habitat for Humanity homes.

“In four days, you do something that’s incredible,” says Jeff Green of Lindenhurst, a veteran of the annual NIU Habitat for Humanity trip. Green plans to go this spring for his fourth consecutive year—even though he graduated with a degree in sociology in December.

“The first time I went, I was just looking for something to do. I didn’t know much about Habitat for Humanity, but I thought, ‘Florida for spring break—why not?’ ” Green says. “The trip became so much more than that.

“It’s an amazing experience to get together with friends from Northern and build a house,” he adds. “You’re also doing a great thing for a family and working with a great organization.”

Jack King, internship coordinator in NIU’s Department of Sociology, leads the annual outing, which is heading into its 17th year. Over that span, NIU groups have built about 25 homes in and around Pensacola, Fla.—enough to fill a small subdivision.

Trip participants get a crash course in homebuilding, learn life lessons along the way and strike up new friendships. One student brought her boyfriend on the trip for several years; they later returned and put down their hammers long enough to get married on the beach.

“It’s a fun trip, and it’s been interesting to watch the students come and go over the years,” says King, who keeps framed pictures from past spring breaks in his Zulauf Hall office.

“Many students come back, even after they’ve graduated,” he says. “And many of the local Habitat volunteers are the same from year to year, so we’re kind of like family.”

King now is gearing up for this year’s trip, from March 6 to March 13. It costs just $220 per person, and participants all travel together by minivans to Pensacola, where they stay in beach houses and condos.

The NIU group usually consists of about two dozen students, plus another dozen or so alums, faculty and friends. While the group always boasts a large contingent of sociology majors, it also attracts a wide variety of students from such areas as business, education and engineering.

NIU spring breakers from last year’s trip to Pensacola, Fla.

“The kids come, and they’re all enthusiastic and eager to work,” says Joanne Perry, a construction crew leader for Pensacola Habitat for Humanity. Although the local chapter works with other colleges, NIU has the longest tradition of providing volunteers for spring break, she says.

“We especially love the ones who come back from the previous years,” Perry says. “It’s kind of like family vacation—we all get together and have a good time, but we’re working and doing something good for someone else at the same time. Pensacola appreciates the work that the college kids do.”

The trip isn’t all work—there is a little beach time and the students can go out on the town. But they are required to be up at the crack of dawn to put in a full day’s work.

“This trip is great for students who aren’t interested in the big party-till-you-puke kind of thing,” King says, adding that students learn lessons that aren’t found in textbooks.

“The students learn about the widespread need for affordable housing, and the realities of trying to find housing. They also work alongside the soon-to-be homeowners, so our students match faces with needs.

“I think they learn a lot about themselves on this trip as well,” King says.

Students say they love this spring break alternative so much that they often begin planning for the next year on the return trip home.

“This will be my third year,” says Kathryn Chiplis of Batavia, a graduate student who’s working on her master’s degree in sociology.

“After you do it once, there’s something that draws you in,” she says. “I really like volunteering, and the first time I did this trip it was like, ‘Wow, we built this house.’ It’s an empowering experience.”

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Media Contact:
Tom Parisi, NIU Media Relations and Internal Communications
(815) 753-3635

Media Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Media Relations and Internal Communications
Phone: (815) 753-3635
Email: tparisi@niu.edu